The Problem: Individualism and the “hustle,” a term that seems to be at the center of pop culture vocabulary these days, may be overrated? David Brooks, New York Times columnist, presents a thought provoking view on this topic in an column entitled “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy.” He describes the nature of two mountain lives. “People on the first mountain spend a lot of time on reputation management. They ask: What do people think of me? Where do I rank? They’re trying to win the victories the ego enjoys…These hustling years are also powerfully shaped by our individualistic and meritocratic culture. People operate under this assumption: I can make myself happy. If I achieve excellence, lose more weight, follow this self-improvement technique, fulfillment will follow.” Brooks goes on to describe the lives of the people where something happens to interrupt the linear individualistic, ego-focused existence they had imagined for themselves. For most but not all, this involves a low point or valley that ideally eventually leads us to what Brooks describes as the “second mountain.” Brooks continues: “I can now usually recognize first and second-mountain people. The former have an ultimate allegiance to self; the latter have an ultimate allegiance to some commitment. I can recognize first and second-mountain organizations too. In some organizations, people are there to serve their individual self-interests — draw a salary. But other organizations demand that you surrender to a shared cause…”
Story: I’m hearing some interesting commentary about my “unretirement.” I announced a formal retirement from one organization in August 2018, and now have decided to take on a role with another, well past the age my father formally retired, or the so called official “retirement age.” Some of the comments I hear: “Haven’t you had enough? Earned enough? Can’t you just be happy doing nothing?” etc. I don’t know if I qualify as a second mountain person according to Brook’s assessment, but I know I am driven by purpose and contribution. I love being in service to others. Whether I receive recognition for working that way is not important to me. And while I don’t do it for free, I don’t look to find the biggest paycheck either. I agree with Brooks when he says: “On the first mountain we shoot for happiness, but on the second mountain we are rewarded with joy. What’s the difference? Happiness involves a victory for the self. It happens as we move toward our goals… Joy involves the transcendence of self (devoting to purpose and others)… On the second mountain you see that happiness is good, but joy is better.”
What we can do about it:
- Understanding the difference between being personally driven for self/accumulation versus purpose/service, is an important part of each of our climbs.
- Leading in an organization requires us to understand why “deep purpose” is vital to meaningful progress.
- Consider Brook’s conclusion: “Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. The second-mountain people are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one. They ask us to see others at their full depths, and not just as a stereotype, and to have the courage to lead with vulnerability. These second-mountain people are leading us into a new culture.”
Think Big, Start Small, Act Now,
One Millennial View: I personally find nothing immoral or culturally wrong with individualism and meritocracy. I consider it a great motivator. I simultaneously understand that first mountain achievements will not bring total fulfillment. Luckily for us, these aren’t real, physical mountains, and I think we can find ways to explore both. If we’re keeping with the mountain analogy, while the views are potentially more joyful on the second mountain, you still need enough first mountain experience to buy climbing equipment. And you certainly shouldn’t scoff at first-mountain folks, because that’s a steep, tough climb that not everyone can ascend. Both trails are just fine, I guess the only bad choice is to stay at basecamp and never attempt to hustle or find a way to serve others.
Edited and published by Garrett Rubis